Just Above Sunset
May 1, 2005 - The Limits of Spin

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“In order to be a great writer a person must have a built-in, shockproof crap detector.” – Ernest Hemingway

Last weekend’s Just Above Sunset item The Grownups Will Tell You What You Need to Know generated some comment generated some reader comment. The item was about what Eric Alterman called the Republicans’ clear, agreed-upon plan to diminish the mainstream press. The discussion was about just what we are allowed to know – actually about how spinning the news has been taken to new heights, or lows, depending on your point of view, and on your party affiliation.

And it included a quote from the president’s advisor Karen Hughes - "We don't see there being any penalty from the voters for ignoring the mainstream press."

Of course, Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, who was in at the start of CNN, had a reaction –


Wouldn't it be neat if whoever she said that to didn't have a professional responsibility to keep his outrage to himself, or herself? Yeah, but that's only a fantasy, since if the questioner had that power, they wouldn't be let inside the door to ask those questions.

You hear a lot of people these days -- Mostly liberals? No, maybe all of them liberals -- bemoan the fact that we don't have "Question Time" like they do in the British Parliament once a week. I myself don't find that all that useful, all those pols jeering and cheering on cue as if they're at a football match, but I sometimes think we should have something like it written into the Constitution where the president and his top leadership have to sit for an hour or two and face nothing but hostile questions. Maybe they could do a reverse of the Bush campaign trick by only allowing entrance if you sign a pledge saying you don't support these people. Now THAT would make compelling television!

But I'm not saying this is all the fault of Bush et al, including Karen Hughes. Somewhere this past week, I heard what was said to be an old African saying, that "the ruin of a nation begins in the homes of its people."

At some point, we have to lay much, if not most, of the blame upon ourselves, the voters, for not paying enough attention to the health of our democracy. Let all the ridiculous wonks and pundits talk each other to death, we seem to say. Paying attention to politics is like eating broccoli, it's something you know you should do, but it's much more work than fun, and I'm old enough now that no grownup can make me do something I just don't feel like doing.

So while we obsess about who's next to be voted off some imaginary island on TV, we have a Republican dictatorship in Washington engineering what may be (for all I know) the first-ever-in-American-history clean sweep of any party's Appeals Court nominations, a huge tragedy that gets lost in all the recent discussion of what to do about the filibuster.

Somehow we need to find a way to impress on our fellow countrymen and women that they need to find out -- and to understand in the context of what historically this country is all about -- what's going on in their country and in their world, and then take that knowledge to their local polling place on election day. Somehow we need to make it easier for people to figure out what's at stake in every election, both national and local.

How to do this? I just don't know. Something between browbeating and encouragement, I reckon. Appeal to that little adult hiding down deep inside every American? Naw, forget I said that. What was I thinking, that 2004 never happened?

Anyway, any suggestions?


No, no suggestions.

Bob Patterson, added this –


Ron Suskind quotes these guys saying “we create our own reality.”

And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too.

The Democrats seem (mark that word) to be operating as if they accept the statements that Jeb will not run as chiseled in stone. If in late 2007, Jeb hears that the public is "demanding" that he run for president, the Democrats will have a whole new reality to accommodate. The fact that they did not go into a "prevent defense" during 2005, 2006, and 2007 may seem like they frittered away the chance to use all that time to link Jeb negatively with some nasty stuff. They will, in effect, give him a clean bill of health (and a free ride) for all that time.

Then in early 2008, the Democrats can try to stop a run-a-way "bandwagon" effect and sound like a BB rattling around in a boxcar while the press obligingly meets the "reluctant" candidate with the 1812 overture featuring the loudest accompanying canons ever. (Didn't one performance actually use 105 mm howitzers provided by the US Army?)

What if Dubya's fanatical religious base quietly begins to "demand" that he run for a third term? Couldn't the ever-Bush-obliging Supreme Court hand him that opportunity on a technicality?

The Suskind quote seems to confirm the Democrats’ assessment that the Republicans act (sometimes by telling a "fib") and that, while the Democrats scramble to react (let's sing "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"), the Republicans are busy planning their next "rock 'em sock 'em" move to maintain the momentum. (Old boxing strategy: jab, jab, jab, jab, jab….)

I think assuming that Jeb won't run is what Karl Rove would call a "fake out" maneuver.

In 2001, I wrote (not in Just Above Sunset) that the Democrats were crazy if they honestly thought that Bush stole the 2000 election - but would be a nice guy and while holding the office of president would suddenly relent and hold an honest (with no paper trail) election in 2004.

What was the story about the grasshoppers who didn't prepare for winter?


And Vince in Rochester picks up on Rick’s question about how to get people more involved.


How to do this? I just don't know. Something between browbeating and encouragement, I reckon. Anyway, any suggestions?

Rick, it would seem upon reviewing -

1) Bob's succinct re-recounting of the Democrat Movement's standard "response model" to anything dangerous out there in the dark deep woods …

2) along with the outrageousness of the accumulating evidence that the Karl Rove inspired "red herring" movement rolls on day after day after day... as we preen in the glow of our TV's

it might be concluded that Middle America will only get excited enough to pay attention if there is SOMETHING TO PAY ATTENTION TO!

I'm guessing we have to find ourselves a new movement.
Arlo's old line: Two is a conspiracy, why – three is a whole movement! People need something to rally around. And the current controllers won't be let anything emerge if they can help it.

So what can we invent that's got new gathering power? Good question? New messiah out there to rally around? It WILL take something POSITIVE and new. NO ONE WILL RALLY AROUND A REBUTTAL! Kerry reminded us of that truth. So who or what can we all get excited about? Therein lies the future.

No real answers here, but insight's not a bad place to start.


Well Rick also said this – "We need to find a way to impress on our fellow countrymen and women that they need to find out - and to understand in the context of what historically this country is all about - what's going on in their country and in their world, and then take that knowledge to their local polling place on election day. Somehow we need to make it easier for people to figure out what's at stake in every election, both national and local."

I don't see that happening. My weekly site and daily blog are read, if read at all, by people who are already interested in such stuff and are, so to speak, on my side. It's that echo-chamber thing. The policy wonk, history buff, theory-of-government echo-chamber. Oh, the sites might pull in a few regular Fred and Ethyl types - with snazzy pictures and Ric's columns from Paris, and Bob's book column - but that's unlikely. You can just skip the text - and I know many readers who do.
Example? I know a woman out here whose only news sources are Fox national, the local weather, and CBS Sunday Morning - who hasn't stepped into a voting booth in thirty-five years - who subscribes to no newspaper and no magazines (never has) – who does her CEO job seventy hours a week, worries about her grandkids, and worries about her son in the Army in Mosul. She loves the pictures - and she's a big fan of Phillip Raines’ pieces. She thinks he's terrific. She doesn't read the rest.

And worrying about her son is Mosul has absolutely no political content. She doesn't know why he's there, and she doesn't think about it. That's for other folks. She just wants him to come back alive, and whole - completely assembled, to put it politely. Of course. This other stuff is not her business - and she doesn't see why I care. Her mantra? No one can do anything about that stuff. Other folks decide that stuff. You deal with the cards you're dealt.

To her credit, she doesn't watch the eat-another-worm reality shows, or American Idol with its ninth-rate singers, or follow celebrity news - at all. She reads mystery novels, those gushy ones written by women, and now and then watches old movies, or when she can, watches fey men figure skating. On the weekends she often has golf on the television - using it as a soporific (it does help you doze off quickly when you stretch out on the sofa). But that means there is no medium, or media, by which to reach her. Oh yeah - she doesn't listen to talk radio at all. She prefers the oldies station out of Los Angeles - KRTH.

She's pretty typical. I don't see her changing. Should her son not make it back, she won't turn political, one way or the other. She'll deal with it. A private matter.

But her son - the West Point man - can sit with me for hours and we talk policy and history and theory. His mother walks out of the room. His older brother - avidly conservative and far to the right of anyone else I know - will talk economics and taxes and social policy with me. We have a fine time. And his mother walks out of the room.

Almost everyone walks out of the room. Her two sons are unusual. Folks like this woman are the target audience you seem to think should be reached. I don't see how.

Bob and Vince talk about what the Democrats have done, and should do. Does it matter?

I posted this on 28 May 2003 - - and stand by it:


Do you remember the clear-headed, no-bullshit, let's-be-fair liberals of yesterday? Bobby Kennedy in that last run just laying it all out - hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better? Well, Bobby got shot. Martin Luther King doing the same thing. Well, he got shot a few months earlier than Bobby. Of course, to be fair, George Wallace got shot too. Lots of people got shot.

But the point is that those optimistic "why don't we fix it and make things better" kinds of guys are nowhere to be found these days. What you'll see on Bush campaign stickers in the 2004 election? You know - variations on "Just Do It" or "Money Talks, Bullshit Walks" or "Get In, Sit Down, Shut Up, And Hold On" - and of course that quote from Marge Simpson - "We can stand here like the French, or we can do something about it." The other side, the Democrats, will have bumper stickers asking if we all can't just get along.

No Democrat will win anything by whining about the smirking frat boy or by fretting about some British essayist hating cheeseburgers and everything American. To win the Democrats would have to field an opponent with a sense of humor, some brains, and a lot of optimism, someone who listens to what is being said, and is willing to say - "Hey, some stuff is wrong here and why don't we think it through, fix it and make things better?"

It does not seem like that is going to happen. And if it did, he or she would get shot.


How are things different now?

Vince says this in reply –


Those of us who read and think are in position to dream something up and do something about it.

Karl Rove reads and thinks. His victims are just that.

We (collectively - someone in our midst) must do the same as Rove – only different.


Sure. But what? Publish a web log and weekly commentary magazine? Ric Erickson in Paris says that might be just the thing – one shouldn’t walk out of the room.


JustAboveSunset is one grain of sand. The blog adds a grain per day and the web version adds grains per week. These types... 'policy wonk, history buff, theory-of-government...' come to JAS to see the message, add to their message, massage the message, producing yet more grains of sand messages. Like building pyramids, one grain of sand at a time, the grains pile up becoming blocks of stone. There isn't an architect; just leaderless ants each carrying a grain of sand. How long will it be before a shape emerges? It depends on atmospherics, accumulation. It may be foggy but it's happening.


Really? Any part of the mainstream press, with a gazillion more readers that these two sites, follows the party line, lest they offend the corporate owners, or be ridiculed as part of the vast, left-wing conspiracy, or lest they lose the inside sources the now have who may be offended.

The news is shaped by those in power. Small pyramids don’t matter much.

Ah, but then there is something I missed – the argument that there IS change in the air. Pleasant moderates are manning the barricades in a sort of agreeable revolution? Consider the evidence that follows.

Revolt of the Middle
E. J. Dionne Jr. – The Washington Post - Tuesday, April 26, 2005; Page A15

The opening is cool –


If you were to prepare a list of the top 10 stories you will never, ever read in a newspaper, one of them would surely include a sentence beginning: "Thousands of angry, screaming moderates took to the streets yesterday demanding..."

You can finish that sentence however you would like. The accepted view in politics is that moderates don't get angry, don't scream and don't demonstrate. Politics these days is said to be dominated by ideological enthusiasts. Moderates are thought of as people who sit on the sidelines and decide which batch of true believers they can most easily live with.

But something important has happened since President Bush's inauguration. America's moderates may not be screaming, but they're in revolt. …


Really? Dionne is contending that many Americans who reluctantly supported the president and the Republicans in 2004 are turning away. Why? He suggests the Social Security agenda – who needs it when you can invest your own money in the stock market? - has put people off, and that this business with getting rid of the filibuster so we can get judges who follow the Bible first and the constitution second has also put people off. And there is that Terri Schiavo mess – with most of those polled saying the federal government had no business getting involved and wasting all that time and money. Dionne is saying most moderates, as he formulates it, have a practical, problem-solving view of government and think these issues are far less important than shoring up a shaky economy and improving living standards.

It is hard to see that from watching the news. That’s not the spin one sees on television.

So, what is the evidence?


The latest poll to bring home this message was released late last week by the Democracy Corps, a Democratic consortium led by pollster Stan Greenberg and consultant James Carville. Greenberg and Carville are not triumphalist. They are careful to note that "Democrats are not yet integral to the narrative" of American politics and that the decline in the Republicans' public image "is not accompanied by image gains for the Democrats."

Democrats still have a lot of work to do.

But one finding deserves more attention than it has received: The "biggest drops" in the Republicans' standing, the pollsters noted, "have come from people who do not identify with a party," with "those who describe themselves as ideologically moderate" and with "mainline Protestants," that is, Protestants outside the ranks of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches. These are classic middle-of-the-road groups.

When they were asked how they would vote if a congressional election were held now, Democrats led by 43 percent to 25 percent among independents, and by 57 percent to 31 percent among moderates. In 2004, according to the network exit polls, Kerry beat Bush by only one point among independents and by nine points among moderates.

And in an amusing but revealing question, the pollsters asked how Americans would vote in a contest between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush if the Constitution were changed to allow them to run in 2008. Clinton beat Bush, 53 percent to 43 percent -- a rather decisive judgment on our two most recent political legacies. While Carville, the Clinton loyalist, no doubt liked this result, there's no evidence that the question or the poll itself was skewed.


But such information doesn’t fit the conflict-narrative that makes the news so interesting, does it? The revolt of the nice, middle-of-the-road folks? Where’s the hook?

But something is up. Dionne says that smart Republicans are very worried.

Yes, charges that Democrats are "obstructionist" have not worked – ending Social Security, appointing theocrats to the bench, telling the Florida court that had it wrong for fifteen years and that woman’s body should be kept functioning because we are a “culture of life” and all that – and people are a bit perplexed at why we cannot have the government we elected do something useful for a change.

Well, the Czechs had that Velvet Revolution and few decades ago. This might be the start of something a bit more pragmatic – manning the barricades and demanding attention be paid to something useful in the everyday world.

But this may be a misreading of the tenor of the times. I do not see a return to a practical, problem-solving view of government. That’s so last century. This is the age of the attack dog and bully (Bolton comes to mind) and that’s a Bubba thing.

A minor aside on John Bolton. See this



An ambivalent sadness settled over me today when it appeared that Bolton might lose his bid to represent my country at the UN. Whatever else you might say about him, he represents the attitude and manner of many Americans and our relationship with other countries. He is arrogant, abusive, jingoistic, a schoolyard bully and mean. In other words he is our foreign policy unvarnished. Bolton would have represented the true face of the Bush administration without the fake boyish smile. That would have been helpful to other countries who might otherwise have been induced to trust us to be decent, humane, or truthful.


Ah, another voice suggesting we return to something normal.

Can the Democrats make anything of this? Probably not.

Over at The Daily Kos we get this challenge


Ask any person on the street what a Republican stands for, and you'll get a single answer -- smaller government and lower taxes, family values, and a strong national defense. We can quibble about the GOP's real commitment to those values, but at the end of the day, they form a strong brand around which the GOP's entire agenda can be framed.

Ask 10 people what the Democrats stand for, and you'll get 10 different answers. Ask me what the Democrats stand for, and I'll stare back speechless.

The GOP has been brilliant in distilling their brand into three points, and I have been arguing that Democrats need to follow. Except that in a stroke of inspiration, I was able to distill the Democratic brand into a single short sentence:

Democrats are the party for people who work for a living

This includes our core labor constituency, obviously, but also small businessmen and women who have been shamefully ignored by our party. It includes our men and women in uniform. It includes anyone who depends on their paycheck to make ends meet.

Tell me why I'm wrong.


Because this is just a slogan? No one will buy into this – as a branding thing – if the mainstream media won’t pick up on the concept. You not only have to have a brand – you have to spin it, and too there is product placement and all the rest.

A friend who actually teaches marketing to would-be MBA’s at a big business school, and a bit of a cynic, adds this –


You know, these days Republicans might claim that Democrats are all those who SUPPORT people who DON'T work for a living!

Have Republicans also been clever enough not ONLY to brand themselves but also to anti-brand the opposition?


Yes. And the press has cooperated with them.

But then Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, has a final word –


The answer for you Democrats, in fact, is not to define yourselves by what the other guys don't believe about themselves, but by what this country really needs.

When you think of it, the Republicans are pretty cynical, negative people, ready to jettison any segment of the citizenry in a heartbeat, whether they be folks who don't share their religious biases, sexual preferences, or bean-dip-brained approach to foreign policy. The Democrats should have the guts to be the party that doesn't really exclude anybody! (Unless, of course, somebody doesn't agree with us -- in which case, those folks will be on their own.)

The Republicans inside the Beltway, who recently seemed so pleased to discover that nobody was noticing what they were doing (see "Karen Hughes"), are now starting to wake up to the fact that maybe they can't get away with rewriting all the rules without being punished for it (see today's story of the House GOP doing an about-face in their attempted Ethics Committee coup.) Even folks in Tom Delay's home district now have questions about him, and the "nuclear option" now seems to be developing naysayers on even the majority side in the Senate.

The moral for the Democrats? Maybe it's "Keep the faith! Do the right thing, even in the darkness where nobody but God can see, and just possibly, someday soon, the light will return!"

What I like most about the Democrats is they, more than any other party, seem to share the founders' attitudes about who this country is meant for -- everybody! We're all in this together! Not just rich people, not just Christians, (eventually) not just white people or males, and not just Republicans. This country is owned by all of us, and we all should be running it. And the Democrats can make this happen.

Let the Republicans define themselves however they want, the Democrats should just be the party that stands for "doing what's right!"

(PS: By the way, can I call 'em or what? Today I heard Jerry Springer on Air America Radio arguing the point that "Jesus was a liberal!" I'm telling you, this idea is starting to build!)


I like that!

So maybe there is some hope.

And that’s the end of this little grain of sand. I don’t see the pyramid growing, do you?

Well, one never knows.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
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